Soil: A Novel

Soil: A Novel

by Jamie Kornegay

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476750873
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 03/22/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jamie Kornegay lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he moved in 2006 to establish an independent bookstore, Turnrow Book Co. Before that he was a bookseller, events coordinator, and radio show producer at the famous Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. He studied creative fiction under Barry Hannah at the University of Mississippi. Soil is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Soil

  • 1

    Before the flood, a stouthearted young couple was putting down roots in the nearby town of Madrid, where they’d settled after college—a man, his wife, and their young son. They painstakingly refurbished a house and planted an attractive garden in the back, where the father let the toddler dig and explore and pluck green tomatoes too soon from the vine. Smiles were never absent from their thankful faces, and if there were troubles then no one bothered to recall them. But a young man, especially one so clever, will grow restless and sometimes throw away everything when he turns elsewhere to affirm his life’s purpose.

    The trouble started with compost. He first began making and experimenting with it for his job in soil management at the local Farm Service Agency. He started small, a few wooden bins in the backyard of the home on Nutt Street. He collected kitchen scraps and coffee grounds, raked leaves and grass clippings. He spread one ingredient over the next in lasagna layers, sprayed them down with the water hose, and turned the piles regularly with a garden fork. If properly maintained, the compost would actually become hot to the touch and would belch plumes of steam when stirred on cold mornings. He loved the earthy smell that rose from the mounds, the whiff of rot and fiber, the way the soil broke and fluffed a little more each day. Here was nature at work, made more efficient by man’s guiding hand.

    He began to judge everything for its recyclability. All matter was either carbon or nitrogen. Soon he was collecting bags of lawn debris from neighborhood curbs and canvassing farms for straw bales and manure. He sorted leaves by species, made flowcharts of dung potency. Bins and mounds multiplied as he tinkered with ratios and tested fertility. He tilled up every square inch of backyard and planted vegetables and herbs, lined the front walk and driveway with big terra-cotta pots, each plot a test patch for some specially formulated recipe.

    When he submitted a sample to a USDA-sanctioned exhibition, earning the highest marks in soil friability, nutrient retention, and water solubility, the local newspaper caught wind of it and dubbed him Compost Man. This gave his colleagues a good laugh. Even his wife joked to their friends about his growing “mudballs” out back and said she’d prefer him sneaking off with her lingerie catalogs than ogling the seed brochures the way he did.

    One morning he walked out back to turn the piles and found that someone had laid a cruel turd atop one of his prize mounds. It was definitely human. The stench was complex and he found a fast-food napkin with brown streaks nearby. He couldn’t believe the audacity. They’d just hopped up on the bin, draped themselves over the corner, and let one rip.

    He paced the back porch and spent hours at the window, profiling every neighbor who walked by with a pet. Every jogger, every biker, every long-haired mischievous teen. What was this compulsion to foul something so pure and constructive? Who was deranged enough to do such a thing? He walked out back with his hammer and studded the rims of each bin with nails. Next time someone came snooping pants-down in the dark, they’d pay with blood.

    His colleagues thought it was a hilarious prank. Even his wife suggested gently that he was taking it too hard. “We eat out of that soil, for God’s sake!” he replied. “You want to end up in the hospital with a bacterial infection? Can you see our little son, dead from E. coli poisoning?”

    She was skeptical of this, but he scoured the internet to prove the causes and insufficient cures of various bacteria and infections, moving on from there to viruses, superbugs, pandemics, extinction events. The deeper he dug, the more perils he uncovered.

    Likewise the prank grew epic in his imagination. It was a pointed statement—“I shit on your life”—made by a lone creep and endorsed by a society that deemed him irrelevant. Somehow the smallest things can break a man, and the hairline fracture deep within the young scientist spread over the next several months. It did not depress him or slow his obsession but rather excited his research, leading to more compost mounds and more outlandish experiments. He upset the whole neighborhood when he planted a late-­season crop of corn right there in the front yard. His wife was horrified by bean and cucumber vines planted in the rain gutters, cascading down like gaudy Christmas decorations. “You’re turning our beautiful home into a feedlot,” she accused him.

    He read incessantly and became an expert on diverse farming techniques from ancient to modern civilizations. His interpretation of historical patterns convinced him that poor soil management had led to the downfall of societies throughout time. He relayed all of these findings to his farmer clients and expounded on the hazards of modern farming. They were hidebound men who planted cotton, soybeans, and corn as their families had for generations, trying to eke out modest livings against increasingly volatile world markets. Times were tough enough. They had no use for antiquarian farming theories promoted by some arrogant, pencil-pushing upshot. Nor did they appreciate his accusations that they were squandering the soil by leaching it with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, casting a blight upon the land and rivers and seas with their shortsighted and unsustainable methods, virtually ensuring that their grandchildren, along with everyone else’s, would wander the famished countryside like starving refugees in a desert of poisoned dust. All they wanted from him was help filling out subsidy applications and disaster relief forms.

    The soil scientist grew bitter and withdrawn. He felt rather like a young suburban Moses, entrusted with critical information from on high that the general rabble was too distracted to glean. The agency confirmed this by requesting his resignation.

    Their idyllic life threatened, his wife went back to school to get her teaching degree while he stayed home with the boy. But he did not mope and feel sorry for himself. Just before his forced retirement, the young farmer had attended a regional ag conference where he heard a lecture on advances in hydro- and aeroponic technology delivered by a famous environmental scientist who made the stunning admission “Plants don’t actually need soil to grow. Just a fissure for their roots to spread and soak up moisture and nourishment.”

    It was an offhanded remark, on the way to a larger point, but to the soil scientist it felt like an atom bomb. The statement was so simple and staggering, so obvious. Soil-free farming. Why had he never seen it? Look at the bonsais and cacti in their rock gardens, the weeds growing up from cracks in the sidewalk.

    His imagination vaulted years ahead to farms that operated indoors, fields stacked one atop the next in glass high-rises, each floor its own crop grown in recycled water and mineral baths. He saw farmers in white lab coats appraising the beautiful plants, no bugs or blemishes, no sweat or sunburn, not a speck of dirt in sight. The future will be spotless! Hoes and plows became droppers and beakers. Computers monitored optimal growing conditions. All of the equipment was powered by the sun and the wind, a perfect organic machine. The greatest pitfalls of agriculture—pestilence and disease, the unpredictability of weather, poisonous pollutants and industrial runoff—could be solved by making the whole process simpler, cleaner, and more efficient. He could build it and lead the innovation. He could make the world healthier and more peaceful. There was no time to waste. To proceed authentically, he would have to start from the ground up.

    He searched for a piece of land, spent two months sorting through overpriced and unsuitable plots until he found a house with seventeen acres twenty miles south of town. It had been a rental property for years, but the owners had come on hard times and were looking to unload it quickly. The house was a charmless pile of bricks compared to their town cottage, and the backyard was full of castaway equipment and scrap. The fields were grown over, all scrub and marsh and raw potential. Beyond the house was pastureland and forest, even a river, the wild and portentous Tockawah River, which ran along the southwestern edge of the property and would serve as a constant source of irrigation. It was the perfect site for his experiment. All of it could be his for a song.

    He composed his pitch and approached his wife. She listened to him describe the experiments and the laboratory and the farm tower he would erect, how he intended to produce enough fresh food to supply the local population—“Not a farm so much as a growing system, indifferent to the whims of markets and nature.” The way he described it and the completeness of his vision revealed a surprising logic born from his craze, and she became seduced a little.

    She wondered about the home they’d made, the comforts they’d earned. Couldn’t they live in town and start a farming business on the side?

    The start-up capital to make this dream a reality required both the proceeds from the Nutt Street house and the inheritance she’d recently received from her stepmother, an unexpected gift which might have been wisely spent paying off student loans or starting a college fund for the boy.

    “What better way to prepare a boy than to raise him in the country?” he asked. Teach a boy to hunt, fish, and farm, and you’ve paved the way for an honest, salt-of-the-earth man to live free come hell or high water.

    She got a far-off look in her eye. Could she see it all before her, just as he had? Or was she scared to say no, knowing that if she kept her husband and his ambition shackled here she risked losing the very things she loved?

    She had faith in him and his passion. He was asking her to double down on their young fortune. They took the leap together and spent some of the best days of their marriage in this shared endeavor.

    A year later they were ruined.

  • Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Soil includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jamie Kornegay. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    Introduction

    When Jay Mize moves his family from their comfortable small-town life to a beat-up farm in the Mississippi flood basin, he’s not just looking to get away from it all; he’s looking to change the world. But when nature interferes with Jay’s plans to revolutionize farming, and his paranoia about modern life starts to get the best of him, things unravel. Separated from his wife and son, left alone to stew in fear and anxiety on a flooded, ruined farm, Jay is convinced he’s hit rock bottom. And then he finds the corpse. In a better state of mind he might have reported the body, but with his paranoia mounting and the local hot-rod deputy poking around his property, Jay convinces himself to dispose of it on the farm. With the pressure mounting, Jay is caught in his own personal apocalypse—his only remaining hope lying with attempts by his estranged family and his hippie neighbor to reel him back in from the brink.

    Topics for Discussion

    1. Soil opens with a description of a weather pattern alternating between drought and flood. How do these contrasts influence the course of the story and its characters?

    2. Early in the novel, the narrator offers an interpretation of Jay’s future actions: “A young man, especially one so clever, will grow restless and sometimes throw away everything when he turns elsewhere to affirm his life’s purpose.” What do you make of this sentiment—what do you think the author means?

    3. “Somehow the smallest things can break a man,” the narrator muses. How do the smallest actions sometimes take on outsize proportion in our own lives? Why do little things come to serve as symbols or as catalysts for action?

    4. Throughout the novel the author plays with the timeline of events—the book opens with a description of something we see much later from a totally different angle. What effect does it give to the experience of reading the book?

    5. The tone of the writing also contributes much to the narrative and storytelling. Discuss how the style and tone change according to the character or action being described. How does the author bring out humor, drama, and horror?

    6. Throughout the novel, a central theme is the influence of family history on individuals. It is most strikingly illustrated in the Mize men, from Jay’s grandfather to his son, Jacob. How do history and heredity influence the actions of characters, and their thinking? What do you think is the author’s point of view on heredity?

    7. Aside from the Mize family, the character we learn the most about is Deputy Shoals. How does your perspective on Shoals evolve throughout the story? How is his character revealed and made increasingly complex? How does he serve as a foil and antagonist for Jay?

    8. Aside from Shoals and the Mize family, Soil is populated by a plethora of minor characters, Whom did you find most surprising? Whom did you most enjoy reading about?

    9. Discuss the scene in which Jay sights two mating deer and subsequently envelops himself ecstatically in the nearby mud. Is this episode a turning point for him?

    10. Sandy sees Jay’s paranoia and its consequences as a self-fulfilling tragedy: “I think that you believe your life will only have purpose if the world is falling down around you.” Do you agree with her perception of Jay? Do you think there are people in the world for whom this characterization is true?

    11. Even for all of its darkness, Soil is frequently very funny. What effect did humor have on your reading experience?

    12. Like Jay, Sandy endures her own, minor disintegration. She asks herself, “Who are you going to be? Who will you be, alone in the dark?” What does she mean?

    13. Throughout the novel Jay maintains that it’s the world—not Jay himself—that’s insane. What do you make of his condemnation of modern life? Do you sympathize wth it, even a little?

    14. One of the central themes of the novel is the conflict between nature as a reserve from the pressure of contemporary life and, at the same time, nature's indifference to human need. How would you characterize the author’s view of nature? Is it anything like your own?

    15. Images of soil, dirt, earth, and mud permeate the novel. How does the author explore the various meanings of soil?

    16. Discuss the ending of the novel. How do you interpret Jay’s death, his final thoughts, and the images the author uses in the last few paragraphs? Did it affect your view of the story as a whole?

    Enhance your Book Club

    1. The history of the Mize family, and to some extent of the Shoals family, forms a crucial part of Soil. Reflect on some aspect of your own family history—your parents’ or grandparents’ lives, or even further back. Has it influenced you?

    2. Soil explores Mississippi hill country in depth—with all its quirks, weirdness, dark places and bright spots. If you were to set a novel in your own town or in another place that you know well, what would you want to bring out of it? What kinds of characters would live there? How would the land and climate influence people’s lives?

    3. From John Grisham to William Faulkner, Mississippi is the source and inspiration of a wide body of fiction, film and TV. What do you think makes this region such a rich source for fiction?

    A Conversation with Jamie Kornegay

    This is your first published novel, after years of working as a bookseller. Were you always a writer, or did you come to it gradually? How long have you been working on Soil?

    I think I’ve been a writer since I could read. I wrote my first novel around the age of eight, by longhand, in an E.T. spiral-bound notebook, and mailed it to the publisher of my favorite Judy Blume books. Sadly, it was sent back with a form rejection letter. Many years and a few failed novels later, I began Soil. I came up with the concept and then developed it my mind for years while I started my business, Turnrow Books. When I sat down to write it, it took about three years or so, but the book has been in my head for ten or more.

    Where did this story come from? One can only hope it isn’t drawn too much from real life—but were there elements from your own history, or from stories you had heard?

    Taking the back roads to work one day, I drove by flooded farmland and noticed a rotten stump sticking up from the mud. My imagination got the better of me, and for a moment I thought it was a corpse. I began to imagine things through a Dostoyevskian lens. Soon I had conceived a story in which the protagonist would find a dead body and cover it up, through some twisted, misapplied guilt, which led to more questions and justifications and scenarios, all things used to build characters and stories from scratch. This led me to the gestation years I mentioned, in which I procrastinated by conducting a lot of research, including studies of planting and agriculture, and trying to develop a method by which Jay could dispose of a dead body—a method that hadn’t already been done a hundred times in movies and novels—in a way that would erase all the evidence and wouldn’t draw the attention of those who might or might not be watching. The chapter where Jay is wandering around the pasture thinking about this, coming up with various scenarios and contingencies, is a condensed form of the conversation I had with myself and with other thoughtful conspiracists, including my father-in-law, a private detective. I arrived at the solution pretty much the same way Jay did: imagining charcoal as a way to filter the inevitable smell of a burning body. I discovered how charcoal was made in the past and how it was used as fertilizer. It fit perfectly into the novel’s theme. I consulted a New England biochar company and figured out how to design the barrel retort, sought the help of a local metal worker to build it, and secured a deer carcass from a local processor for my “organic material.” I conducted the experiment in my backyard in town, the model for the Nutt Street house, just as Jay does it with the bones in one batch and the organs on the propane burner. I had everything ready, and then it rained for three days straight, so by the time I got to the bones, they were rank and disgusting. It was a hideous project. All the revulsion and anxiety and insanity that Jay feels come from genuine emotions and experience.

    The culture of Mississippi is its own character in the book—one that is treated acerbically, but not unsympathetically. Did you feel as though there were prejudices or stereotypes about the South you were engaging with, or trying to alter?

    If I was toying with stereotypes, it was because I was trying to present things as I see them here—which may clash with some readers’ expectations and which will hopefully create a nice, screechy feedback. Some of the prejudices about the South are well-earned, but what I find most interesting is the bedrock on which all those assumptions and prejudices are laid. It’s not as simple as you see on television and in movies. In some ways, the novel is about how our misperceptions can cause unnecessary and irrevocable damage. I actually saw this more as a story about rural America in contrast to the urban world. Mississippi sets the tone and obviously inspired me, but you can place these characters in any rural community in America and find people dealing with the same issues—interactions with the land and wildlife, issues of privacy and territory, anonymity and community, age-old family disputes and prejudices. I’m very interested also in how the old ways, more preserved in the rural setting, where life turns at a slower pace, interact with the new ways.

    The treatment of Jay’s paranoiac mania is one of the most fascinating elements in the novel—how did you get so deeply into that kind of mental space?

    Well, clearly I’ve already outed myself as somewhat obsessive. You take an experimental garden in the backyard, heaps of compost, a deer carcass, and an oil drum crematorium, and extrapolate from there. But I think this is what writers and artists do. They take their interests, obsessions, and fears and reel them out like taffy. I’m not normally so paranoid, but it only takes delving into the threats of the world to make you push them toward the edge. I pushed them, went to a place well past comfort, and hopefully mined some believable paranoia and madness. I actually scaled a lot of it back in the editing process. It got fairly grim there for a while, and I think that’s when the deputy Danny Shoals came on the scene to balance things out.

    The struggle between indifferent nature and a frightening or threatening modern world is one of the central conflicts in Soil, one that you exploit wonderfully without picking a side. How do you strike a balance in your own life? Do you ever feel yourself longing to pull a Jay and go back to the land? Or do you see that as a naïve fantasy?

    I certainly feel that compulsion to go back to the land. I grew up in the country and spent a lot of time as a child playing in the woods. I live in town now, but when I get the chance, I still enjoy retreating into deep nature. It’s a tranquil, holy place but not without its difficulties. The conflicts you find in nature seem more honest to me than those you find in town with people. So yes, I daydream about moving off the grid, setting up a self-sufficient system, and living with my family. The only thing naïve about committing to that lifestyle, at least for me, would be to think that one could easily leave all the trappings of civilization behind. And definitely, as Jay learns, you can’t shut out other people. Escaping to the wilderness would simply be a means to greater privacy, easier access to nature, possibly even a solution of thrift. But in the end, we’re herd animals and need to interact with other humans to feel complete.

    Soil is a unique blend of intense and graphic violence, dark humor, and thoughtful, almost elegiac prose—what kinds of scenes or bits were the most difficult to write? Which were the easiest? Is comedy or drama more interesting for you to write?

    Without a doubt, the hardest scene to write was Jay dismantling the dead man. As the book exists, the reader is not invited into the tent with Jay, but in earlier drafts, we got right up beside him. I wanted to create revulsion in the reader so that perhaps they would understand what kicks Jay’s madness into overdrive. It was too much. I’m thankful to early readers who advised that less is more in that instance. As I said, when things got too grim with Jay, I always enjoyed turning to Shoals for comic relief. Not that he was easy. His instincts are base and I had to plumb to hit bottom, but I enjoyed watching him swagger around the story. I think my favorite chapter to write was the one where he turns up at Sandy’s house after she calls him to investigate a prowler in her basement. Based on a true story.

    Some of the most moving and natural passages in the book come in the interactions between Jay and Jacob—indeed, one of Soil’s central themes is the father-son relationship. What do you see as the difficulties and rewards of this bond? What did you learn about these relationships while working on the book?

    On the acknowledgments page, I thank my kids for giving me a story, and that’s the truth. In that break between conceiving the story and writing it, I became a father and raised children. Suddenly, this book was about more than a dead body in a field. This became a story of redemption and purpose through growing another life. One thing they don’t tell you before you become a parent—especially a father, who lacks that immediate, biological imperative that takes over so naturally in the mother—is how difficult it can be to sacrifice all or even some of your driven pursuits in the sudden, diverted interest of raising a child. Men are bound to falter trying to make this adjustment. (And women like Sandy, whose bodies are hijacked and rewired by this other life, so often get short shrift as they quietly endure it all.) This is what happens to Jay, who is so hell-bent on his plan to save the world from hunger that he neglects to save his own family. Tragically, this realization hits him too late. I like to think he would have turned his life around but for that fateful walk back from the river when he meets a stranger who has come to seek revenge for a prior misdeed.

    Science, with all its benefits and hazards, is a strong theme in Soil. Are you naturally interested in farming technology, compost, and—well—dirt? Or was this a product of lots and lots of research?

    Like a lot of people, I really became obsessed with soil and farming and composting after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It arrived at the perfect time in my life. I’d already started experimenting with a garden, but the civic possibilities intensified after I read that book. And that spiritual aspect of nature became very keen to me the more I got my hands dirty. I could understand why someone would see this benevolent manipulation of earth as redemptive and holy. With science, as with anything, I think humans are instinctively trying to do good. What interests me as a writer, though, is that point at which they cross over from positive to destructive.

    Soil has roots in many different literary traditions, and a lot of its power comes from its ability to blend those elements into a coherent whole. Who (or what) do you identify as your primary influences? How do you write your way out from under those influences, to create something new of your own?

    I had a teacher in junior high who challenged me by assigning Crime and Punishment. Even though I didn’t comprehend it fully at the time, that book changed my thinking about literature profoundly. It was the first book that haunted me. I’ve studied writers like Faulkner for his ambition and structure, and Hemingway for his tone and characters. From Patricia Highsmith, I learned about creating tension, and from Charles Portis, the value of comedy in observation. Another major influence for me was Barry Hannah, my teacher at Ole Miss. This is someone who embodied colorful language and daring thought. He was an enemy of dullness. If I ever feel bland and can’t shake anything pertinent loose onto the page, I dip into his work. No other writer’s sentences set my mind ablaze like his. He also taught me the value of listening to music as a means of training rhythm into your prose. Tom Waits, whose lyric sets the scene at this book’s opening, is a tremendous influence. I’m astounded by his ability to match vivid, artful lyricism with evocative music. Working with all these influences, taking their examples and setting it all to the tempo of life here in Mississippi, that’s how I’ve made a coherent whole.

    Do you have plans for another book, or are you working on something now? Are you interested in remaining in the South, or are you looking further afield?

    I’m definitely looking further afield. I’m dabbling in several different ideas, some of which take place in the wider world. But the South, Mississippi especially, is such a rich and complex place. I could write forever about this place and never exhaust the material. I only scratched the surface in Soil, which is set in the northeast Mississippi hills. It’s a different geography and culture from the Delta, where I live now. The book I’m currently working on is set in the modern-day Delta, on a farm, though much larger in scale—180 degrees from Jay. The Delta is Mississippi in its most concentrated, potent form, and I’m taking everything— those themes of nature, society, history, family, violence, comedy—up a notch or two. It’s going to be fun. Conceptually, think of a hybrid of Moby-Dick, Jaws, and Duck Dynasty.

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    Soil: A Novel 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
    BrandieC More than 1 year ago
    3.5 stars I just read a book called Judging a Book by Its Lover, in which Lauren Leto provides five-word slogans to summarize books by a variety of classic and contemporary authors. (My favorite: William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury = "Dilsey saved all their asses.") My five-word summary of Jamie Kornegay's Soil? Crime and Punishment in Mississippi. To be fair, Kornegay expects the comparison; at one point, we learn that our protagonist, Jay Mize, has "a dog-eared Dostoevsky" on his bookshelf. Unlike Raskolnikov, however, Jay hasn't actually killed anyone, so his building paranoia, lacking any grounding in a guilty conscience, appears to be the product of mental illness. Narratives about the mentally ill can be interesting, as Soil is, but they generally do not lead the reader to identify with or inhabit the skin of a character in the way that great literature does. At bottom, Soil doesn't ask anything of the reader; it is the reading equivalent of an episode of Hoarders. The reader's attempt to relate to Jay is further hampered by a massive sub-plot in which one of Jay's suspected pursuers, Sheriff's Deputy Danny Shoals, falls in lust with Jay's estranged wife Sandy. (The explanation for Shoals's vanity license plate, SUGAR, is particularly cringe-inducing.) While Shoals's pursuit of his wife does lend credence to Jay's advancing paranoia, Kornegay could have accomplished his purpose without all of the details about Shoals's sexual proclivities. At the beginning of the book, we are charmed by Jay's obsession with the soil, with his desire to create the best environment in which to grow food after what he sees as the coming environmental apocalypse. By the end, however, we are merely dispassionate observers of a crumbling mind. TRIGGER WARNING: Dogs were killed during the writing of this book. I received a free copy of Soil through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.